The opportunities that nanotechnology could bring to the food industry will be highlighted at a key event later this year.
The conference, entitled Nano and Microtechnologies in the Food and Healthfood Industries, will give the industry the chance to debate the future of both nanotechnologies in key sectors such as food ingredients, processing and monitoring.
Delegates will be given the chance to discuss exactly how nanotechnology can be harnessed to tap key trends such as the growing demand for nutrition and health food. New techniques and technologies for the rapid and safe testing of food for disease and the various safety and regulatory issues related to the use of new technology will also be topics of discussion.
The food industry is only beginning to realise the full potential of this new technology, which deals with sizes that are truly mind-boggling. Nanotechnology is the term used to describe matter with lengths of between 1 and 100 nanometres.
One nano-metre is equal to one billionth of a metre, and is about the size of a small molecule.
Many food scientists would claim that the industry already embraces nanotechnology. Food proteins are globular particles between 10s to 100s nm in size - true nanoparticles.
And new innovations are continually hitting the market. Aquanova's recent nanotech antioxidant system for essential oils and flavours is a clear signpost of where food ingredient technology in the 21st century is headed.
The product, which is marketed under Aquanova's Novasol brand as Novasol CT, is designed to help manufacturers introduce antioxidants into food and beverage products easily and effectively.
In addition, worldwide sales of nanotechnology products to the food and beverage packaging sector jumped to US$860m in 2004 from US$150m in 2002, according to a study by consultant Helmut Kaiser.
This opens up a whole universe of new possibilities, but also fears. Given that there is no requirement to label foods containing nanoparticles, consumers are unlikely to be aware of such applications in foods.
A current concern is that there is too little information available at present on the properties of nanoparticles and, in particular, on how their very small size might influence toxicity. According to Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST), it is therefore necessary to treat nanoparticles as new, potentially harmful materials and to test whether they are safe or harmful.
"In using nanotechnology, it is important to assess how products of nanotechnology will eventually lead to the release of nanoparticles into the environment and to estimate our subsequent levels of exposure to these materials," said the IFST in a recent information statement.
Another concern is access. There is a danger that smaller food companies and developing countries could be muscled out of the market by larger food processors, which have the money to pay for the research and an army of lawyers to keep control of the technology through intellectual property rights.
According to the ETC Group, intellectual property (IP) will play a major role in deciding who will capture nanotech's trillion dollar market, who will have access to nano-scale technologies and at what price.
There is certainly much to discuss. Nano and Microtechnologies in the Food and Healthfood Industries, is an opportunity to address these issues, and establish nanotechnology as a science with enormous potential within the food sector.
The conference runs from the 25th-26th October at the NH Grand Hotel Krasnopolsky, Amsterdam.